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People who make a difference: Shana Joseph & Adam LeSage

‘We both started chasing something deeper’

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October 17, 2023

M0cKD0uqwe8NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – Though always having an interest in photography – Shana Joseph and Adam LeSage of Defining78 – said their individual paths to the career field weren’t exactly what you’d describe as straightforward.

“I always loved photographs and never felt like it was a tangible option to make a career out of it, so I went to school for other things,” Joseph said. “I have a biology degree and a master’s degree in education, and I was a full-time school teacher for three years – all while my heart was in photography.”

After being in the industry for nearly two decades, LeSage said it’s hard to pinpoint when he got his start – but said it wasn’t necessarily something he thought “he’d grow up to do.”

“I entertained the idea of becoming a psychologist or something like that,” he said. “I randomly took some career aptitude tests in the middle of the night – you know, when you’re searching for ideas of what you are going to do for the rest of your life – and the No. 1 thing that came back was a photographer.”

Though he admits he never gave being a photographer much thought, he has always been drawn toward art.

“Not being artistic myself but just drawn toward it,” he said. “So, I gave it a shot.”

LeSage said he bought a 35-millimeter camera and shot his first wedding on film.

“I had no idea what the heck I was doing,” he said. “I developed the pictures at Woodman’s.”

Regardless of how they got to where they are today, both Joseph and LeSage said it isn’t why they continue to pursue the career today.

Just as the industry has evolved over the years, LeSage said their purpose as photographers has as well.

For them, LeSage said it goes far beyond just snapping pictures.

Each year, Defining78 brings together dozens of volunteers to pack meals at the area’s Feed My Starving Children annual event. Submitted Photo

“We’re not necessarily telling people’s legacies, but we’re like the cliff notes – helping to share them,” he said. “There’s been so many times after a wedding, people will email me and say, ‘that was the last picture of grandma…’ and I think that brings with it a new sense of purpose.”

LeSage said as much as they are there to capture certain moments of their clients’ lives, the time spent with each of them is just as important.

“The pictures matter, but it’s like the people and the relationships that matter the most to us,” he said.

A larger purpose
As they have both moved through “the good, the bad and the ugly moments of life,” the photography duo said they have regained a sense of purpose for what they do.

“Any good relationship in life, there’s an equal exchange – you give and you get,” Joseph said. “We’re trying to give a little bit more than what we get out of this.”

Though taking pictures helps pay the bills, Joseph said she has a hard time calling it a job.

“Yes, we do work for people, we give it our best, we give it our all and we’re paid in exchange for that, but that wasn’t enough,” she said. “I think we both started chasing something deeper the older we got and the more things we went through in our own lives.”

Navigating their way through their own “dark spots in life,” Joseph said they recognize the significance of having that helping hand reaching out.

“I think what photography gives us in return is purpose and fulfillment,” she said. “It’s not enough for us to be taking pretty pictures for people.”

Joseph said she doesn’t think either she or LeSage would have been able to hang on in this industry – “it’s a tough industry” – without the “exchange of purpose and fulfillment coming from what we’re doing.”

LeSage said he isn’t quite sure when, why or how they got involved with Feed My Starving Children – a nonprofit that coordinates the packaging and distribution of food to people in developing nations – because it happened so naturally.

“I think we both wanted to do something more than what we’re doing,” he said. “(Being involved with) Feed My Starving Children is an easy way for us to hold ourselves accountable by donating a certain amount of meals for each shoot.”

LeSage said Defining78’s involvement with the nonprofit is also something they can share with their clients.

“It is something they can also be excited about – they’re booking to shoot with us, but able to give to a worthy cause as well,” he said.

The studio’s involvement with the organization, LeSage said, has continued to evolve over the years.

“It started off slow and then we started doing more fundraising through T-shirt and bottle sales,” he said. “And then it culminates with the Feed My Starving Children event.”

Each fall, LeSage said he and Joseph, along with dozens of supporters, pack meals for the nonprofit during an annual week-long event.

“This wasn’t about me or Shana,” he said. “It was using photography as a platform to bring all these like-minded people with huge hearts to pack meals, volunteer and donate. We’ve been doing that for about 10 years now.”

Joseph said one of the things she enjoys most about the event is it highlights that giving isn’t just about monetary donations.

“In some years, we’ve had maybe up to 100 people come join us physically, in-person packing meals – people were able to give their time,” she said. “I have four kids, Adam has one, and we have also worked hard to include them and let them see and experience the giving we do.”

Session fundraisers
Just as the studio’s involvement with Feed My Starving Children happened organically, LeSage said they started session fundraisers in a similar fashion.

In 2017, LeSage said his wife Catie was diagnosed with osteosarcoma on her pelvis.

The weeks and months following the diagnosis, he said, were grueling, filled with chemo and extended stays at Mayo Clinic.

“It was a difficult year as far as trying to manage the business, essentially being a single parent when Catie was at Mayo Clinic trying to raise a two-year-old,” he said.

Going through something like that, LeSage said, “changes you to the core.”

Inspired by the movie “Love Actually,” Shana Joseph and Adam LeSage began using posters during their donation videos. Submitted Photo

“I don’t think anyone can go through that and then come out the same ever again,” he said. “It makes you more human, and it makes other people more human, too.”

Sparked by his own family’s journey with cancer, LeSage said he and Joseph decided helping other families dealing with similar struggles was something they were compelled to do – again using Defining78 as the platform for giving.

Since then, the studio has raffled off photography sessions with all funds collected going to a cancer family in need.

And, because many of the recipients are immunocompromised, Joseph said they decided to get a little creative with the donation deliveries. 

“I think with the first donation, we were physically unable to make contact with them (because they were so sick),” she said. “So, we thought, we’ll stand at a distance and flip these cards like they did in the movie ‘Love Actually.’”

Joseph said things have grown from there.

“We then started recording the donations so we can share them with our donors,” she said. “I think what moves Adam and I the most is the number of people who come alongside us and willingly give to people they don’t know, simply because we give them the opportunity to do so.”

Joseph said the intention behind the big video deliveries – complete with costumes, themes and props – “is to share that giving experience with our donors.”

“We’ve had up to 150 donors per family,” she said. “We want to bring them along in that journey, share that joy of giving with them and be able to include them every step of the way.”

Joseph said they don’t intentionally search for families to help.

“It seems to happen harmoniously when someone comes into one or both of our lives, and it makes sense they are the person or the family we should help,” she said. “We’ve most often done families affected by cancer. However, last year, we helped another photographer who had been hit by a drunk driver on the way home from a wedding and had to give up the rest of her season.”

Joseph said they are always keeping their eyes and hearts open to those around them.

“We try to always be aware of what’s happening around us and are probably more sensitive to it because of our own experiences in the past,” she said.

Though LeSage said his own family’s journey with cancer initially sparked his desire to help others going through similar struggles – for him, the aspiration goes much deeper.

While supporting his wife through chemo, LeSage said they were reacquainted with a couple he had taken pictures for at their wedding a few years prior.

“We weren’t super close at the time, but we became super close over the next few months,” he said. “Very similar situation – they, too, had a young kid at the time. They were the most amazing people. But when we were getting better updates and a good prognosis – they were getting worse ones.”

Regardless of what they were going through, even then, LeSage said he and Catie weren’t people who often asked for help.

“We weren’t looking for help, we didn’t want a benefit, we didn’t want any of that,” he said. “But Brittany (the woman we got close to during chemo) – though very sick at the time and in the last month of her life – made it her goal to throw us a benefit.”

LeSage said the benefit far exceeded anything he had ever imagined – garnering support from hundreds of people, many of whom, they didn’t even know.

“I think for me personally, from that moment, I’m always going to be indebted to Brittany,” he said. “I’m always going to be indebted to the people who gave themselves to Catie and my family. When it comes to the rest of my life, not that I owe her or them, I feel in my heart I need to pay it forward to honor and represent them.”

Joseph said a quote they often look to is: “in darkness, we all inch toward any fragment of life.”

She said through Defining78, she and LeSage have taken it upon themselves to be that light for others.

Shana Joseph said hundreds of donors willingly give to people they don’t know, simply because they give them the opportunity to do so. Submitted Photo

“And it’s not just me and Adam doing this on our own,” she said. “It’s the hundreds of people who have bought into this that make it possible. We get to hand money off and do the videos and choose the family – but, we’re just the platform. We have followers and we chose to use the attention and put that light on people in need.”

Joseph said as photographers and small business owners, she and LeSage have chosen to use Defining78 as their giving platform, but it isn’t the only way to give.

“I would encourage others to look at their heart and see what their heart hurts for,” she said. “Maybe that’s an animal shelter, maybe that’s hungry children, maybe that’s a cancer family, maybe that’s someone who has been in an accident – but try figuring out how you can turn that pain into a passion to help whatever group that might be.”

In the end, Joseph said it comes down to having the guts to “ask ourselves what our bigger purpose is.”

“Life is short,” she said. “Adam and I get a lot of things wrong… but, our eyes have been opened.”

Joseph said little, baby steps can make a big difference.

“It doesn’t have to be big steps,” she said. “We can pretty steadily raise $7,000 in a fundraiser now, but we didn’t raise $7,000 right away – though we were certainly willing to try and make an ask. If you can get the people in your life to also buy into what you’re doing – the impact can be really big.”

Meaning behind the name
The photography duo said their studio’s name – Defining78 – also has a deeper meaning.

LeSage said the average life expectancy in the United States is 78 years.

The pair said Defining78 reminds them on a daily basis to make those years count. 

“I feel like I am able to not only make people feel beautiful but make them see how valuable they are,” Joseph said.

LeSage said not only have he and Joseph found photography to be their passion in terms of a career, but also as a means of being able to help others through community outreach.

Just as the photography industry evolves every day, LeSage and Joseph said the purpose behind Defining78 does and will continue to do so as well.

“With anything in life, we are constantly reevaluating what we’re doing, what causes we are focusing on,” LeSage said.

However, instead of planning out what that giving looks like in the future, he said Defining78 will continue to chase its sense of purpose.

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